It was another day at the races at the oval of the Al-Mansour Racetrack.

"What can we do?" the businessman said, shrugging. "If America says it will smash us, attack us with bombs, what can we do?"His sweets factory was closed for the lack of imported machinery parts, so the businessman selected a brown paisley tie, slipped into a dapper tweed jacket and did what any sane man would do - he went off to the racetrack.

He was studying a television monitor flickering with the entries for the next race when the question was posed:

Would Saddam Hussein back off?

"I wouldn't bet on it," he said. "When you push him he gets. . . ."

He groped for a word, then pounded a fist into the other palm. Then, in the next breath, he said almost desperately, "No, there cannot be war."

In a week when war loomed ever larger here, Iraqis made a studied effort to pace through the normal avenues of life. But as they crowded the racetrack, as they celebrated a wedding, the undercurrent of tension seeped through.

A man in a soiled blue djellaba, the traditional long Arab robe, sat on the dirt selling racing forms near the racetrack entrance. Nearby, a large portrait of Saddam, in flowing robes astride an Arab stallion, gazed paternally over the crowd.

Inside, throngs of roughly dressed men - some in long robes and Arab headdress, some in sweaters and pants - crowded around the betting windows. Above them, green and blue TV monitors flashed lists of horses and the returns they paid to win or place.

About 2,000 men jostled for a view in the stands as a brilliant sun shone on the red, blue and yellow of the jockeys' silks as they paraded their elegant Arabian horses.

As the computerized scoreboard flashed the odds, the prospect of war seemed a million miles away. In the glassed-in clubhouse overlooking the track, a more elite group of Iraqis gathered.

"Whenever people feel nervous, they go out and gamble and lose money because that makes them feel better," said a businessman in a smart blue suit and striped yellow silk tie.

In another section of Baghdad, a spirit of bravado prevailed as 500 extravagantly dressed women gathered at the Baghdad Hunt Club at a pre-wedding party for the bride's and bridegroom's families.

"Weddings aren't being postponed," said an elegant woman in a black velvet dress with black chiffon panels, "unless the bridegroom has been called into the army."

The Hunt Club parking lot was packed with large cars, their chauffeurs waiting patiently inside. Christmas stencils still decorated the plate-glass entry doors.

Inside the huge ballroom, the bride-to-be and her fiance sat on a raised platform with a white satin backdrop. A video cameraman and an assistant holding strobe lights recorded her every move.

The gathering, one of several pre-wedding parties held in accordance with Muslim custom, was for women only. The elegantly dressed women were swaying together on the small dance floor as the eight-piece band switched from romantic tunes to Oriental music to Kurdish rhythms.

All around the hall clusters of women in brocades, satins and velvet drank orange juice.

"When are you leaving?" a handsome matron in a black chiffon and velvet dress joked with a U.S. visitor. "Before the 15th, eh? Maybe you can take us all with you?"

Another woman in a black brocade dress with gold trim added, "Tell President Bush Iraqis are nice people and that we have nice clothes."

A mother watching her two daughters dance said, "Sometimes, I look around and can't believe this is a people preparing for war."

How do they go on? "It is necessary to live," she said.